Message from the Dean: The Power of Stories

Dean Michelle Williams
Ben Gebo / Harvard Chan

Public health is often framed as “population health”—a dispassionate, data-driven approach that is somehow above the everyday joy and grief, clarity and confusion, ritual and messiness of real human life. But if the coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of anything, it is that the personal details of our lives count for a great deal in making sense of and responding to this monumental tragedy.

This issue of Harvard Public Health is devoted to sharing the stories of the School’s faculty, alumni, and students who have toiled relentlessly since January on the front lines of this crisis. These stories are not cool summaries of science—they are distillations of human experience, often raw and unvarnished. Even for the most accomplished and seasoned researchers, such emotions are the reality of confronting an unprecedented calamity—one that could have been curtailed if U.S. and other leaders had heeded public health expertise.

Each one of us is living through a crucial moment in history. And it’s striking to me that the words “history” and “story” share the same linguistic lineage. Indeed, the ancient Greek word historia originally meant inquiry, the act of seeking knowledge. That derivation would surely inspire any scientist working day and night on the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s another way that the linked words “story” and “history” intrigue me. In order to bear witness to history, we must tell our stories by being our whole selves. I went to college during a time when scholars were debating whether academic papers should be written in first person or third person. I think about the irony in my own life: child of immigrants from Jamaica, whose culture was steeped in oral storytelling. Just a few centuries ago, my people were forced to learn written language and then spent generations learning how to pronounce the Queen’s English, the language of our colonizers. As a result, our storytelling traditions languished. Today, in protest movements across this country and across the world, we are recovering these painful narratives at a time of profound cultural reckoning.

As this issue of the magazine goes to press, Madeline Drexler, its editor for the last decade, will be leaving her job to return to full-time journalism. Madeline is a consummate storyteller and has translated the nuances and complexities of public health science into clear and vivid prose. Her page-turning, intensively reported articles have garnered numerous national honors, including three prestigious CASE Circle of Excellence Awards and a Clarion Award. In this pandemic-focused issue of the magazine, Madeline conducted and wrote the oral histories with our faculty, headlined Bearing Witness, as well as the feature Deadly Parallels, which examines similar racial disparities during the 1918 flu and COVID-19 pandemics.

I wish Madeline the very best in the next phase of her career. And as the brutal SARS-CoV-2 pandemic continues to unfold, I wish all of you safety, good health, and peace of mind.

Michelle A. Williams, ScD ’91
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School